The Dream of an Uncluttered Church

by | Sep 5, 2023 | Articles About Church

If you leave something around my house unused for any length of time, my wife may very well throw it away. She’s a purger of unused things. We make regular trips to donation spots whenever we remember that we’ve been carting boxes and bags of donations around in our trunks for a few months.

I’m also one of those weirdos who wants absolutely nothing on my desk except my laptop and whatever book(s) I’m using at the moment. My autographed baseballs and family photos are sprinkled around elsewhere but when I’m staring at my desk, I want zero distractions.

De-cluttering has one significant advantage: focus. When you clear away the clutter, you can focus on the most important tasks at hand.

For a couple of years now, my wife and I have been attending what I would consider an uncluttered church. It’s called Bread and Wine Church. It meets in a barn (a nice, air-conditioned barn, but the local farm dogs do wander through quietly so they don’t interrupt the singing). There are no business meetings, no slate of programs or cleverly named ministries to target the women, the men, the kids, the singles, the seniors, the newlyweds, the divorcees, etc., etc.

We gather to welcome newcomers from all walks of life. We sing a few songs, usually led by a couple of people with instruments. Pastor Darrel Harvey has a couple of random volunteers read a passage, usually chosen from The Lectionary but we stray when the Spirit leads him or one of many guest teachers in another direction. Then he, or a guest teacher teaches some principles while asking open questions along the way like, “What jumped out at you in that story?”

People can share freely in the middle of the message about what they noticed in the text, what they are struggling with, or how they’ve seen God at work in their lives.

Then we serve communion to one another. Everybody is welcome to the table and nobody is pressured to participate. It’s real bread (albeit gluten-free, just in case) and real wine (otherwise they’d have to rename the church), and we celebrate it every time we meet.

And then we leave. We scatter. We go live life in the Northwest Arkansas community. We all try to plug in and volunteer with local nonprofits where we can. We love our neighbors and try to be salt and light in an age of spiritual exhaustion. There are no midweek meetings or programs, so we get to pray, rest, be with family and friends, and hang out with people more.

The church was named Bread and Wine because, at the end of the day if all we do when we gather is come to the table together and share the Lord’s Supper, we’ve accomplished our purpose.

I want to clarify that I appreciate and celebrate the broad diversity of churches that gather in our community in terms of style and structure. I don’t think the super-simple way in which we do church is what every church needs to do. Some people have a real need for a thriving children’s ministry, or authentic community for their teenagers, or special accommodations for people living with disabilities, etc.

I do, however, believe that church leaders should be looking around for actual clutter within their organizations. Nadia Bolz-Weber recently wrote about the issue of decluttering the church and asked an intriguing question…

What would it be like if Ziggy Stardust came to Earth and told the church we’ve only got five years? What if we knew that there was absolutely nothing we could do or not do that would change it, that in five years our congregations and denominations and colleges and camps would all be gone. What if none of our efforts were put into trying to survive?

Ponder it for a minute. Perhaps even make a list. If you, as a church leader, knew that this whole church thing was going to be completely done in five years, what would you change now? Where would you invest your energy? Your time? Your money? What would you be asking people to do?

Nadia continues…

Well, for one, if the game is over, we would have no reason to try and look good… We wouldn’t have to meet on Sunday mornings even… We could stop kissing up to toxic people just because they give more money than others. We could serve the neighbor. Sell all we have, give it to the poor. Melt down all that brass and weave our expensive paraments into public art. We would have no sacred cows. Nothing to be defensive about. No reason to be offended… We could cancel every single committee meeting and spend time in each other’s homes… We’d sing together more. We’d laugh more. We’d cry more. We’d celebrate Eucharist more and in what we used to think were inappropriate places like gas stations, bus stops, old folks homes – anywhere but a big church building whose mortgage we can no longer afford.

We could be a people who laugh; who do not think that needing God is a failure; a people who sing unselfconsciously; a people who are unafraid of suffering and unafraid of joy. And, ironically, I think this is something people, not just the ones who are already members of congregations, may just need more of.

When Angie and I were in the earliest stages of planting Grace Hills, we decided what would be important to us and what could wait, and we stuck to our willingness to say ‘no’ to a lot of good ideas. We refused to call any event an “annual” event so that no event became too sacred. We waited on starting a youth ministry, buying a building, and creating specialized ministries for everyone. And as a result of that simplicity, whatever we did as a church worked better.

As you think about your own church and its structure, think through these questions to stimulate the decluttering process.

  • What are our top priorities and purposes as a church?
  • How could we streamline our communication processes?
  • What events could we eliminate or shrink to create a better rhythm?
  • How could we make fewer announcements during a worship service?
  • Would a different location serve our needs better while saving us money?
  • What elements of our services may not make sense to people anymore?
  • Are there on-site classes we could replace with in-home small groups?
  • Do we have teams or committees that could merge without being overworked?
  • Could teams or committees meet less frequently and still accomplish their mission?
  • What could we learn from a newer church plant with no buildings?

Decluttering can be painful. It’s hard work. It’s messy. And because we’ve been trained to maintain instead of change, people’s feelings are often an issue when it comes to eliminating traditions, ministries, and events. If you proceed, do so with wisdom, sensitivity, and boldness.

In light of our rapidly shifting cultural surroundings, it may be more vital than ever before that we focus on the ancient practices and purposes of the church and eliminate clutter so that we can be more agile.

Photo by Todd Kent on Unsplash.

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  • English (Publication Language)
  • 176 Pages - 05/16/2023 (Publication Date) - Brazos Press (Publisher)
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